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[Lee Kyong-hee] Living on tears of invisible foreign workers

The female sea divers of Jeju are among the symbolic features of the southern island and admittedly its major tourist resource. The “haenyeo” and their age-old ocean harvesting skills are recognized by UNESCO as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Back in the 15th century, however, these stalwart women flabbergasted a new magistrate on his inspection tour by bravely jumping into the cold winter sea, wearing only outfits made of thin cotton. The tender-hearted magistrate handed down instructions not to serve abalone and seaweed ever again on his table. “How could I eat them when I’ve seen those poor women working in such incredulous conditions?” he lamented.

“A Greenhouse is Not a House,” a 2018 documentary produced by Asian Media Culture Factory, instantly recalls this episode from King Sejong’s days. The one-hour-long film, jointly directed by Shekh al Mamun and Jeong So-hee, is an embarrassing revelation of the harsh reality endured by people from other Asian countries who are buttressing our shrinking agricultural industry. Al Mamun, from Bangladesh, and Jeong are both labor activists advocating the rights of migrant workers.

As the title of the film indicates, a great majority of migrant farm workers -- most of them young women -- live in greenhouses. More specifically, after working long hours for low pay, they sleep and eat in makeshift structures built of sandwich panels or shipping containers inside a plastic greenhouse. What distinguishes their so-called “dormitories” from multiple rows of other greenhouses for producing fresh greens around the year is their black shade covering.

These shabby living quarters, hidden under the dark covering, consist of small rooms, each shared by three to five workers on average. They are seldom equipped with proper heating or cooling systems, clean kitchens, shower rooms, or toilets. Some even lack a safety locking device. The film shows around these shelters -- subhuman in a word -- along with workers explaining their basic daily problems.

These scenes are inevitably linked to the death on a December night in 2020 of a 31-year-old Cambodian woman in a vegetable farm in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province.

Looking forward to a long-awaited reunion with her family in just three weeks, and leaving behind her flight ticket to Phnom Penh, Nuon Sokkheng was found dead in her poorly heated, squalid shelter. With her roommates spending the night at another place as the weather forecast had warned temperatures would plunge to minus 18 degrees Celsius, Nuon Sokkheng slept alone in her room. An autopsy cited complications from cirrhosis as the cause of her death, but few doubted her health condition was affected by her living environment.

“Struggles with Perilla Leaves: 1,500 Days with Cambodian Migrant Workers,” a recent book by researcher and activist Woo Choon-hee, begins with Nuon Sokkheng’s arrival in April 2016.

“Like any other Cambodian migrant worker, Sokkheng had probably learned her Korean in her country,” the book says. “She also probably chose farming, knowing of its poorer working conditions than in manufacturing, because it hired more women. After passing the Korean language exam, she probably waited to hear from a Korean business owner and sign a contract.

“If she hadn’t gone through her contract within two years, she probably would have had to take the Korean language test again and wait again for a job offer from a potential employer in Korea within another two years. Fortunately, she signed her employment contract, had a medical checkup, and boarded a plane to South Korea, leaving her family and friends behind.”

There’s no knowing if Nuon Sokkheng envisioned herself living in an environment like what she had seen on Korean TV dramas. But she was one of around 58,000 Asians, including some 8,000 Cambodian nationals, who arrived on an E-9 visa during that year. The visa is given to nonprofessional job seekers from 16 Asian countries for a three-year employment, plus an optional extension for 22 months, under the South Korean government’s Employment Permit System. An ostensibly less exploitative upgrade on the earlier Industrial Trainee System, the EPS was introduced in 2004.

Based on her field research in Korea and Cambodia and conversations with 40 migrant workers and 20 Korean farm owners, Woo discusses the daily lives of foreigners working on perilla leaf farms in several provinces. Then, why perilla leaf farms?

Perilla is a fast-growing crop needing intensive labor around the year, she explains. It keeps farm hands busy year-round and therefore is favored by migrant workers who don’t want to pass winter breaks without income. It is also profitable for farm owners as they can take advantage of the relatively cheap labor of foreigners.

Therefore, perilla farms have come to symbolize the growing presence of foreign workers in the nation’s diminishing agricultural labor force, as claimed by Woo, a doctorate candidate in sociology at the University of Massachusetts.

The problem is that their cruel living conditions apart, most foreign farm workers are overworked and underpaid with little recourse against their bosses. To keep out undocumented immigrants, the EPS makes it practically impossible for workers to leave their employers even when they are clearly overburdened and abused.

While their contracts specify daily labor of 11 hours with three-hour-long breaks, most workers toil more than 10 hours a day, with a short lunch break, and two days off a month. They earn well below the legal minimum wage and late payment is ubiquitous.

So, next time you relish grilled pork belly wrapped in fragrant perilla leaves, you’d do well to think of unknown foreigners who are sweating to pick as many as 15,000 leaves, tying them up in 10-leaf bundles and stacking the bundles neatly into 15 boxes, each day.

It’s also time that the concerned authorities seriously considered substantial measures to resolve anomalies widespread throughout our agricultural sector. That’s what a middle power seeking to become a “global pivotal state” should do to improve the welfare of fellow human beings, let alone removing ethical stain from our own daily meals. 


Lee Kyong-hee
Lee Kyong-hee is a former editor-in-chief of The Korea Herald. -- Ed.

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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